Will Federalism Preserve Yugoslavia?
Daniel J. Elazar
Yugoslavia's crisis is a test case for the efficacy of federal
solutions to bridge the kind of severe ethnic hostilities that
the peoples of Yugoslavia have shown toward one another for
centuries. If Yugoslavia can work out a successful federal
solution, it will be a shining example for other intense
inter-ethnic conflicts, perhaps even including our own.
Let us understand what federalism is. It is a combination of
self-rule and shared rule, a set of cooperative arrangements
allowing the preservation of the autonomy of the partners
within a constitutional framework that protects both. To
succeed, federal solutions require a will to federate -- a spirit
of comity, of give and take, on the part of the parties to them
-- for whatever reason, not necessarily out of love for one
another but perhaps out of necessity.
The South Slavic peoples have never had any love lost between
them. Theirs indeed is a rather dismal history of
tyrannical rulers, often extremely cruel, combined with sustained
internecine warfare. Their unification as Yugoslavia after World
War I was maintained only through dictatorship under a formal
monarchy. After World War II it took Tito to forge a new unity
on a federal basis, but the will to remain united derived from
the agreement of all concerned that they wanted to remain
independent of the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviet
threat was a powerful one.
As a Communist, Tito was an unlikely federalist. In a discussion
with Professor Jovan Djordevic, Tito's great federalist advisor
and constitution-maker, I was assured by Djordevic that he and
others managed to sell the idea of federalism to Tito because
Lenin had accepted it as a means to rebuild the Soviet empire
under Communist rule. (Djordevic himself claimed to
have been influenced by James Madison, father of the U.S.
Constitution, and the great sixteenth century German Calvinist
political scientist Johannes Althusius.) As we subsequently saw,
it was not Tito's death a decade ago that brought about the
crisis of Yugoslav federalism, but the end of the Soviet threat.
The situation in Yugoslavia is like that in a number of other
countries where regions inhabited by different ethnic groups have
attempted to secede. Both Slovenia and Croatia belong to
Yugoslavia's more prosperous north. Slovenia especially feels
that its greater resources are paying to support the rest of the
country. Spain had a similar situation in the late 1970s when the
Basques and the Catalonians, again, the country's richest
regions, were able to capitalize on the same convergence of
economic and political interests. The Spanish introduced a kind
of federalism and successfully resolved the problem through a
judicious combination of self-rule and shared rule. Now we are
seeing the same arguments being advanced by groups such as the
Lombard League of northern Italy against Rome and the south.
Spain and Italy can cope because both countries are on an
economic upswing, while Yugoslavia has severe economic problems.
The irony is that the lands and peoples of Yugoslavia have not
had it so good in terms of peace and prosperity (yes --
prosperity) for 2,000 years, if ever. Significantly, even the
Slovenians and Croatians are not talking about a total
abandonment of federalism but about a formal shift from
federation, with the overarching federal government as the major
player, to confederation, where the constituent polities are the
major players. In many respects, what they are asking for is a
recognition of the reality of the post-Tito years when power
flowed de facto from the federal government to the republics.
Now they want appropriate constitutionalization of that new
relationship. The main problem in Yugoslavia is that historic
ethnic passions easily overwhelm rational efforts at resolution
of the crisis and things get out of hand, as they have in the
last few weeks.
Still, in all the history of federalism, no federal system that
has survived for at least fifteen years has abandoned federalism
of its own volition. Federal systems have been destroyed by
outside conquest or transformed by the decision of their own
citizenry to shift to some other form of federal arrangement as
was the case with the Americans in 1787, the Swiss Confederation
in 1848, or the Germans who transformed a loose federation into a
centralized federation in 1871 and underwent subsequent
transformations after World Wars I and II in response to military
defeat. While federal arrangements may look fragile, once rooted
they become "habits of the heart," as well as constitutional
devices and very difficult to uproot.
In the case of Yugoslavia the eruption of nationalist passions
seems at this moment to have been contained by the intervention
of another federal polity, the European Community, which has
emerged in the last 40 years as a new-style confederation
among whose common purposes is the preservation of the peace of
Europe. The message from the EC seems to be clear. National
self-determination for European nationalities is okay as long as
it is secured through federal arrangements of one kind or
another. What kind is up to the peoples involved but they must
stay within certain boundaries.
The EC initiative has been reinforced by a growing feeling among
Serbs that they do not want to see their sons die to keep
Slovenia and Croatia within the federation. This feeling has
grown now that there is a cooling-off period. Had the
incipient civil war gotten out of hand immediately,
perhaps patriotic passions would have overcome such filial
feelings, but once there was a pause, Serbian parents could ask
themselves the question: "What for?"
If the combination of EC intervention and the self-interests of
the people involved do lead to the working out of a new
confederal arrangement for Yugoslavia it would be a milestone in
the history of Europe and of the world. Moreover, it will augur
well for the use of federal principles in the resolution of other
ethnic conflicts. The world is moving toward federal
arrangements as means for peoples and states to live together in
an increasingly interdependent environment. Up to now, it has
been relatively easy. This is a test case for dealing with a new
stage of difficult situations.
One of the major transformations of the postwar world has been
the emergence of federalism in once highly statist Europe. The
Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium and Spain have resolved many
of their problems of democracy and autonomy with federal
solutions within the framework of an even grander confederation,
the European Community. Now that confederation is extending its
protection and its conditions over Eastern Europe to shift
demands for national self-determination into federalist modes. We
are now witnessing the first test as to whether or not this will
lead to a new, more peaceful, democratic Europe.